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Jamaica and the Bahamas are pushing back against U.S. travel warnings

The U.S. State Department issued a Level 3 travel advisory for Jamaica, saying "Violent crimes, such as home invasions, armed robberies, sexual assaults, and homicides, are common. Sexual assaults occur frequently, including at all-inclusive resorts."
Ramon Espinosa
The U.S. State Department issued a Level 3 travel advisory for Jamaica, saying "Violent crimes, such as home invasions, armed robberies, sexual assaults, and homicides, are common. Sexual assaults occur frequently, including at all-inclusive resorts."

Jamaican and Bahamian officials are pushing back on U.S. claims that the island countries are unsafe for tourists because of rampant crime and poor access to medical services.

In renewed travel warnings last month, the U.S. State Department urged would-be sun and sand seekers to beware of two of the most popular Caribbean beach destinations.

"Violent crimes, such as home invasions, armed robberies, sexual assaults, and homicides, are common. Sexual assaults occur frequently, including at all-inclusive resorts," the agency warned in a Level 3 advisory about Jamaica — just one level below the most severe warning against travel to Americans.

The State Department added: "Violence and shootings occur regularly in many neighborhoods, communities, and parishes in Jamaica."

Officials deem the Bahamas a slightly less perilous destination with a Level 2 advisory, noting that "gang-on-gang violence" is confined to specific cities and neighborhoods, "primarily affecting the local population."

And the U.S. Embassy in Nassau released a security warning notifying would-be travelers that "murders have occurred at all hours including in broad daylight on the streets." The embassy reported 18 murders have occurred since the start of 2024.

Although alarming, the latest notices do not elevate the threat level of either country. The State Department has listed Jamaica as a Level 3 destination since 2022 and the Level 2 advisory for the Bahamas has been in place for years.

But they come at the start of both of the tourism-dependent countries' season and winter-fatigued Americans are seeking to escape the cold in warm turquoise waters and white sand beaches. Which is why government officials from both nations are working allay travel jitters.

"[T]here are very distinctly defined areas within Jamaica that the advisory cites as having high risk for crime, so the majority of the island's tourism product remains unaffected. Overall, the crime rate against visitors to Jamaica remains extremely low at 0.01%," the Jamaica Tourist Board told NPR in a statement.

The board added: "The island consistently ranks among the top destinations for international travel, welcoming 4.1 million visitors in 2023, with approximately 3 million from the United States. Visitors can continue to come with confidence to enjoy all that Jamaica has to offer."

The Jamaica Constabulary Force reportsthere were 83 murders between Jan. 1 and Feb. 3 this year. That is a significant drop from 2023 numbers, when there were 109 total murders during the same period.

Still, the American agency said the homicide rate remains "among the highest in the Western Hemisphere."

While Bahamas officials assert the islands are safe, two women allege assault

Bahamian Prime Minister Philip Davis also responded to the advisories about travel to his country, stressing that the government "is alert, attentive and proactive to ensure that The Bahamas remains a safe and welcoming destination."

Davis also noted that many tourism locations share the same Level 2 designation.

"The incidents described in the January 2024 US Embassy crime alert do not reflect general safety in The Bahamas, a count of sixteen tourism destinations, and many more islands," he added in a statement on Jan. 29.

But less than a week later on Feb. 4, two American women said they were drugged and sexually assaulted by two staff members at the Pirates Cove Zipline and Water Park in Freeport.

The women, both mothers who say the trip was their first vacation without their kids, had been on a Carnival Cruise ship. They disembarked on their last day to spend time at the resort, where they had some drinks that they believe were spiked with drugs.

In an interviewwith Good Morning America, they said they quickly lost consciousness, waking up intermittently, and eventually recalling enough to realize that they had been assaulted by two resort staff members. Both said they had bruises on their legs and tested positive for various drugs.

The Royal Bahamas Police Force said in a statement that they "recognize the seriousness of such matters and handle them with the highest level of professionalism, privacy and sensitivity."

The alleged assailants, men ages 40 and 54, have since been arrested. The RBPF says it is conducting an ongoing investigation with the FBI.

How to stay safe on the islands

State Department officials offer similar advice to those planning to travel to either Jamaica or the Bahamas.

Primarily, tourists should keep a low profile, be aware of their surroundings, avoid secluded places or situations, and avoid walking or driving at night. If confronted by a robbery attempt, do not attempt to physically resist.

Do not bring firearms or ammunition while traveling to Jamaica, including stray rounds, shells or empty casings. The State Department says "the penalties for carrying firearms and/or ammunition, even inadvertently, are severe, and can include lengthy prison sentences."

Officials also encourage travelers to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive alerts and to make it easier for officials to locate you in an emergency. They also recommend following the Department of State on Facebook and X.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 9, 2024 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story incorrectly said there were 109 murders in Jamaica from Jan. 1 to Feb. 3, 2024. The year was 2023.
Vanessa Romo
Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.